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Building families

A tragic miscarriage and a blue-eyed baby girl started Paul and Robin Pennington on a lifelong track of adoption work

A tragic miscarriage led Paul and Robin Pennington to become adoptive parents. Photo by Kevin Vandiver/Genesis

Building families

In a world where people chase moments of viral fame, the extraordinary are the faithful workers who quietly pursue their calling day after day, year after year, decade after decade. For some, that calling involves a particular job, a certain neighborhood, or a social wrong they seek to right. For the couple in this story, it meant adopting children and supporting others in their adoption journey. This story is first in a series about people who persevere.

In 1984, a tubal pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage left 23-year-old Robin Pennington unable to have children naturally. She and her husband, Paul, already had a toddler but longed for more children. They decided to look into adoption even though it seemed impossible: Their house was too small, and they couldn’t afford the $6,500 adoption fee. But Robin’s dad offered to help cover the cost. On the same day of their home study—social workers scrutinizing and approving their house—the Penningtons brought home a 3-day-old baby girl, bald and blue-eyed.

Over the next 14 years, they adopted four more children, three of them from Korea. Still, the Penningtons never thought of themselves as perfect candidates for adoption, especially since Paul suffered from severe coronary heart disease, undergoing his first angioplasty at age 35. Yet, each time, things worked out. Adoption, which had seemed out of reach, became a defining part of their lives. Now they have 12 living grandchildren, three of whom are adopted.

In 2001, the Penningtons started Hope for Orphans to teach and support families and churches involved with adoption. They put 360,000 miles on their Toyota Sienna traveling to conferences across the country. Piled in the back of the car, the Pennington kids homeschooled and survived on Veggie­Tales and chicken nuggets. The constant demands of ministry took a toll, especially on the three youngest children. Sometimes, they begged their parents not to answer another phone call.

At the beginning of their adoption journey, the Penningtons thought a loving, gospel-centered home guaranteed a happy ending. But as their children grew, they learned that adopted kids show up with the same deceitful hearts, besetting sins, and need for a Savior as everyone else. Each child came with unique needs, backgrounds, and predispositions. Some wanted to connect with birth parents. Others didn’t.

Some discoveries were difficult: During a Q&A session in front of an audience, one daughter said adoption felt like being raised by neighbors. The Penningtons had never realized she felt that way. Another child moved to a homeless shelter and said living on the streets felt normal.

Listening to her children and hearing from struggling parents have made Robin more careful about how she pre­sents adoption. She still talks about its positives but also talks about its pain. Adoptive parents do not need fairy-tale success stories, she says. They need other parents to get off pedestals and be honest about their own struggles. She’s become a sought-after counselor because “we’ve been through everything.”

If the Penningtons were just starting out, they would do some things differently. They’d spend less time on the road and prioritize their children more. Still, they hold on to the good things: Recently, a son called from a Cracker Barrel to say he missed them. The restaurant had reminded him of their traveling days.

Through it all, Robin encourages other families to invite God into their struggles and mistakes: “Life’s just hard. Those are the things that bring us to the Lord.”

—Grace Snell is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and a WORLD intern


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